Friday, June 22, 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Reading

LGBTQ Refugees In Turkey — Masha Gessen in The New Yorker on the plight of getting out of oppression in the Middle East.

When you are a refugee, you learn all about the hierarchy of compassion. There are the people from war-torn countries—refugees from humanitarian catastrophes so enormous that they upend the world’s imagination, such as those who have escaped from Syria. There are people who have fled a sudden campaign of violence and hatred, such as the gay men who have been escaping from Chechnya for the past year. And then there is you: unlucky enough to have suffered the kind of misfortune that can’t seem to hold onto a headline. From the officers of U.N.H.C.R.—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that runs refugee-resettlement operations around the world—what you hear is this: “There is no country for you.”

Ali (he asked not to use his full name) is a gay man from Iran who reached out to me on behalf of L.G.B.T. refugees in Turkey. We have corresponded and talked on Skype during the last few days. When we spoke, he tried to make clear that he doesn’t begrudge the world’s focus on the refugees from Syria. Nor does he begrudge the activism that has helped more than a hundred queer Chechens flee their country for the safety of Canada, France, Germany, and other destinations. Ali wants everyone to make it to safety. But he and other L.G.B.T. refugees currently living in Turkey feel like they have been forgotten.

Refugees usually flee their country for one where they can apply, at an U.N.H.C.R. office, to find a third country in which to resettle. The process is not the same as entering a country directly and seeking asylum there—which is an option most refugees don’t have—but it does mean that people have the legal status of refugee when they finally arrive in their destination country. And, in theory, refugees are safe while in the care of the U.N.H.C.R. But U.N.H.C.R. facilities in Turkey have been overwhelmed since the current refugee crisis began: there are more than three and a half million refugees from Syria in the country, along with more than three hundred and sixty-five thousand refugees from other countries. This means that processing times to receive refugee status, which is required before resettlement can begin, have stretched from several weeks to a couple of years. Refugees receive little to no financial or housing assistance while they are in Turkey.

When I asked Ali how old he was, he was momentarily stumped. “I’ve stopped counting the years since I came here,” he said. He did know his birthday, though, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that he was thirty-five. He grew up in Iran. He told me that he was detained by security services, held overnight, and tortured, in 2004—he would have been twenty-two at the time. This scared him so much that, for a couple of years, he stopped blogging on L.G.B.T. topics; in fact, he stopped writing altogether. But then he returned to writing, and even organized some clandestine meetings of gay men. When Ali’s parents found out about his homosexuality, they had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. When he was released back into their care, they kept him under lock and key for a year and a half, and then tried to force him into marriage. He took part in elaborate charades in order to secure a small measure of freedom. He even began making a documentary about gay life in Iran. But, when several of the friends with whom he was making the film were arrested, he realized that he had to flee. “I could be arrested and hanged at any time,” he said. Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran.

In 2010, Ali and his partner, who is from India, moved to India together. Ali felt safer, but soon his partner was being harassed and blackmailed by neighbors, who threatened to turn him in to the police. (In India, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment.) In 2014, the two men went to Turkey in hopes of finding their way to a safe country. Like many gay refugees—and unlike perhaps any other group of refugees—Ali would have preferred to go to a country where he didn’t have relatives. But when the men finally had their refugee status, a year and a half after arriving in Turkey, they asked to be resettled anywhere, in any country that would take them.

They knew, however, that only two countries—Canada and the United States—resettle L.G.B.T. refugees as a matter of practice. By the time Ali and his partner were eligible to be resettled, it was late 2016. Canada had announced its commitment to taking in more Syrian refugees, which still made barely a dent in the number of refugees needing resettlement; it also meant that refugees from other countries were no longer getting resettled in Canada. And Donald Trump had just been elected President of the United States. Almost as soon as he was inaugurated, he would impose a ban on refugees from eleven countries that he considers “high-risk,” Iran among them. (The ban has since been lifted—or, more accurately, relaxed slightly, but the U.S. has also drastically cut the number of refugees it accepts over all.) These events led to how Ali and other L.G.B.T. refugees came to hear the phrase “There is no country for you.” This is what they hear when they inquire about their cases at U.N.H.C.R., Ali said.

Ali estimates that between seven and eight hundred L.G.B.T. refugees are now stuck in Turkey without the prospect of resettlement. Most of them are from Iran, with some from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East. Over the past couple of years, as their hopes of finding a home in the world have dwindled, their life in Turkey has grown harder. Ali was careful to again acknowledge that things are hard for all refugees—all of them have to fend for themselves; all face ever-increasing bureaucratic hurdles to securing work permits; all face increasing impatience, and sometimes hostility, from local residents. Still, Ali said, “if we were from a war-torn country and we entered Turkey, we would be safe in Turkey because there is no war here. But we are fleeing homophobic and transphobic attacks, and we face them here.”

The U.N.H.C.R. assigns refugees to small towns in Turkey, where they are expected to stay as long as they are in the country; the Turkish authorities require them to check in weekly in their assigned town. Far from the thriving queer scene in Istanbul, small towns and cities in Turkey tend to be socially conservative, and have grown only more so during the country’s recent political crackdown. Ali told me that, during the first ten days of June, five L.G.B.T. refugees were attacked in Yalova, a small coastal city on the Sea of Marmara where many of Istanbul’s secular élite historically kept summer homes. One of the victims, a trans woman, had to be hospitalized for three days following a stabbing. This is not unusual, Ali said: “People are beaten up, raped, gang-raped.”

The hopelessness is its own kind of violence, too. “We have seen people commit suicide, go into severe depression,” Ali said. “One lesbian single mother couldn’t get medical treatment for her small child here, and had to go back to Iran for it. She committed suicide there.”

Earlier this month, a number of the L.G.B.T. refugees gathered to try to figure out what to do. “After losing hope for U.S. resettlement, we see that there is no option ahead of us,” Ali said. “We decided to show our own desperation.” This was no small decision. Under the provisions of the state of emergency that has been in effect in Turkey for nearly two years, protest is effectively banned. Refugees have every reason to fear being deported if they protest.

Such was their despair, however, that, on June 4th, several of the refugees went to the offices of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, a Turkish organization that is largely funded by the European Union, in two cities—Yalova and Denizli—and stood in silent protest. They held placards with summaries of their stories (“Gay refugee. 5 years. 60 months. 240 weeks. 1680 days. Still in Turkey. Future: uncertain!!!”) and slogans (“We demand urgent resettlement of all LGBT refugees to a safe country!!”). More than two hundred of the refugees also signed a petition addressed to European, North American, and international officials. The online version of the petition is titled “Save LGBT refugees in Turkey who are abandoned in unsafe conditions for years with no help.”

For all the courage the protest took, it received no media coverage. A few days later, Ali reached out to me. “We are requesting the world to help us reach to safety before its too late,” he wrote.

Cartoon Censorship — Samantha Michaels on the firing of Rob Rogers.

On Thursday, veteran editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers was abruptly fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a string of anti-Trump illustrations were spiked from the newspaper.

Rogers, who joined the Post-Gazette in 1993, says 19 cartoons or proposed drawings were killed by the paper over a three-month period, including six in a single week shortly before he was fired. “After so many years of punch lines and caricatures, skewering mayors and mullahs, the new regime at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decided that The Donald trumped satire when it came to its editorial pages,” he wrote in an op-ed on Friday.

The Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block—who boasted about joining Donald Trump on his private jet at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign—defended the decision. “It has little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump,” he told the Washington Post. “It has mostly to do with working together and the editing process.”

Below are some of Rogers’ recent cartoons going after some of Trump’s most divisive and disturbing actions as president. “The paper may have taken an eraser to my cartoons,” Rogers wrote in the op-ed. “But I plan to be at my drawing table every day of this presidency.”

Full disclosure: I went to high school with John Robinson Block and his twin brother in Toledo in the late 1960’s.  His family has been running The Blade, and now they have the Post-Gazette.  (They’re probably still running “Mary Worth” on the comics page.)  They’ve always been stuffy old bores with no sense of humor or an appreciation for sharp wit.  It surprises me not at all that he would fire a cartoonist, and I’m not surprised at all that he’s a shill for Trump.

Doonesbury — She’s a natural.

Friday, January 12, 2018

You Said It

Since no one who has been following the news for the last couple of years was surprised in the least that Trump called Haiti and El Salvador and other places with a majority of non-white citizens “shithole countries,” the fun part was watching TV or reading online and finding out which commentators or journals would actually use the word “shithole” on the air or in print.

The Washington Post, which broke the story, shocked some readers by putting the vulgar word in its headline — a rare occurrence in the paper’s 141-year history.

“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

Such a comment made by the president, especially in front of several witnesses, is newsworthy, no matter how reprehensible it may be, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer who writes a language column in The Wall Street Journal.

“It was incumbent on media outlets to present what he said without extradition or euphemization,” he said.

That’s exactly what many of them did. In an unusual move, the word “shithole” was repeated in print and on air Thursday evening, in capital letters on the CNN and MSNBC headlines that appear on the lower part of the screen. Fox News censored the word with asterisks.

Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News warned viewers that the story would not be appropriate for younger viewers, while ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir said the president used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”

But CNN’s Phil Mudd embraced the expletive in condemning the president’s language, citing his Irish and Italian ancestry and the slurs once used against immigrants from those countries.

“I’m a proud shitholer!” he told Situation Room anchor Wolf Blitzer. “In the 1940s, we called people traitors because they came from a shithole country we call Japan. And we’re ashamed.”

For those who write dictionaries, the repetition of “shithole” on television and on the Internet was “the sort of thing we call a party,” wrote Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam Webster.

You could actually see that the network news broadcasters were getting a bit of adolescent glee out of being able to say the word on the air without fear of reprisal from the FCC; it’s like they’re actually enjoying it.  (The folks on cable TV did too, but they don’t have to worry about government oversight.  They just had fun with it.)

As for the newspapers, even the New York Times, ever the Aunt Pittypat of decorum, allowed the word to be used full-tilt in the body of the story but kept it out of their headlines.  Oh my stars and garters.  (The New York Daily News didn’t use the exact word in their headline, but a picture is worth a thousand asterisks.)

It’s also fun to see how quickly he blew up all the carefully choreographed message from the White House that he was both in control and a stable genius.  The mad scramble came from people checking their betting slips on how soon he would do something to torpedo that meme: who had under 24, 48, or 72 hours?  (Meanwhile, Eric Greitens, the governor of Missouri, is sending a box of candy and a dozen roses to the White House for knocking his sex scandal into the “In Other News” abyss.)

Since it’s not a news flash that Trump is a bigot and a racist, the only thing left now is gauging the reaction to the fact that even his staunchest supporters can’t hide behind the dog whistles that he’s been hardly using since long before he emerged as a presidential candidate. He was sued for racial discrimination in housing in the 1970’s, so it’s not like we didn’t know.  Now we get to see how all the Trumpistas, especially the ones who railed about character counting during the Clinton years, explain to the rest of us that labeling entire nations as shitholes is “shocking” without alienating the base of the voters who agree wholeheartedly with him.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Reading

Inside the Mueller Investigation — Robert Costa, Carol D. Leonnig, and Josh Dawsey in the Washington Post report on what goes on behind the scenes.

A white sedan whisked a man into the loading dock of a glass and concrete building in a drab office district in Southwest Washington. Security guards quickly waved the vehicle inside, then pushed a button that closed the garage door and shielded the guest’s arrival from public view.

With his stealth morning arrival Thursday, White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II became the latest in a string of high-level witnesses to enter the secretive nerve center of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Twenty hours later, Mueller and his team emerged into public view to rattle Washington with the dramatic announcement that former national security adviser Michael Flynn would plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

The ensnaring of Flynn, the second former aide to President Trump to cooperate with the inquiry, serves as the latest indication that Mueller’s operation is rapidly pursuing an expansive mission, drilling deeper into Trump’s inner circle.

In the past two months, Mueller and his deputies have received private debriefs from two dozen current and former Trump advisers, each of whom has made the trek to the special counsel’s secure office suite.

Once inside, most witnesses are seated in a windowless conference room where two- and three-person teams of FBI agents and prosecutors rotate in and out, pressing them for answers.

Among the topics that have been of keen interest to investigators: how foreign government officials and their emissaries contacted Trump officials, as well as the actions and interplay of Flynn and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

Mueller’s group has also inquired whether Flynn recommended specific foreign meetings to senior aides, including Kushner. Investigators were particularly interested in how certain foreign officials got on Kushner’s calendar and the discussions that Flynn and Kushner had about those encounters, according to people familiar with the questions.

Often listening in is the special counsel himself, a sphinx-like presence who sits quietly along the wall for portions of key interviews.

This picture of Mueller’s operation — drawn from descriptions of witnesses, lawyers and others briefed on the interviews — provides a rare look inside the high-stakes investigation that could implicate Trump’s circle and determine the future of his presidency.

The locked-down nature of the probe has left both the witnesses and the public scrutinizing every move of the special counsel for meaning, without any certainty about the full scope of his investigation.

Trump and his lawyers have expressed confidence that Mueller will swiftly conclude his examination of the White House, perhaps even by the year’s end. Trump’s Democratic opponents hope the investigation will uncover more crimes and ultimately force the president’s removal from office.

Meanwhile, some witnesses who have been interviewed came away with the impression that the probe is unfolding and far from over.

“When they were questioning me, it seemed like they were still trying to get a feel of the basic landscape of the place,” said one witness who was questioned in late October for several hours and, like others, requested anonymity to describe the confidential sessions. “I didn’t get the sense they had anything incriminating on the president. Nor were they anywhere close to done.”

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said he believes the probe’s focus on Trump’s White House is wrapping up, noting that all White House staffer interviews will be completed by the end of next week.

“At the end of the interviews, it would be reasonable to expect that it would not take long to bring this to conclusion,” Cobb said. “I commend the Office of Special Counsel for their acknowledged hard work on behalf of the country, to undertake this serious responsibility, and to perform it in an expedited but deliberate, thorough way.”

At least two dozen people who traveled in Trump’s orbit in 2016 and 2017 — on the campaign trail, in his transition operation and then in the White House — have been questioned in the past 10 weeks, according to people familiar with the interviews.

The most high profile is Kushner, who met with Mueller’s team in November, as well as former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former press secretary Sean Spicer. Former foreign policy adviser J.D. Gordon has also been interviewed.

White House communications director Hope Hicks was scheduled to sit down with Mueller’s team a few days before Thanksgiving. Mueller’s team has also indicated plans to interview senior associate White House counsel James Burnham and policy adviser Stephen Miller.

McGahn, who was interviewed by Mueller’s prosecutors for a full day Thursday, was scheduled to return Friday to complete his interview. However, the special counsel postponed the session as a courtesy to allow McGahn to help the White House manage the response to Flynn’s plea, a person familiar with the interview said.

Cobb declined to say which White House aides remain to be interviewed.

Several people who worked shoulder to shoulder with Flynn have also been interviewed by Mueller’s operation. That includes retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff to the National Security Council, as well as several people who worked with Flynn Intel Group, a now-shuttered private consulting firm.

During the transition, Kushner and Flynn met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. At the early December meeting, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications line between Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.

Kushner has said that Kislyak sought the secure line as a way for Russian generals to communicate to the incoming administration about U.S. policy on Syria.

Trump’s son-in-law has also been identified by people familiar with his role as the “very senior member” of the transition team who directed Flynn in December to reach out to Kislyak and lobby him about a U.N. resolution on Israeli settlements, according to new court filings.

The volume of questions about Kushner in their interviews surprised some witnesses.

“I remember specifically being asked about Jared a number of times,” said one witness.

Another witness said agents and prosecutors repeatedly asked him about Trump’s decision-making during the May weekend he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. Prosecutors inquired whether Kushner had pushed the president to jettison Comey, according to two people familiar with the interview.

Kushner attorney Abbe Lowell declined to comment on what the president’s son-in-law discussed at his November session with Mueller. “Mr. Kushner has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and will continue to do so,” he said.

Two administration officials said that it would be natural for investigators to ask a lot of questions about Kushner, whom Trump put in charge of communicating with foreign officials, adding that such inquiries do not indicate he is a target.

The special counsel has continued to make ongoing requests for records from associates of the Trump campaign, according to two people familiar with the requests. The campaign associates aren’t expected to finish producing these documents by the end of the year. Mueller’s team is also newly scrutinizing an Alexandria-based office and advisers who worked there on foreign policy for the campaign.

In the past several weeks, Mueller’s operation has reached out to new witnesses in Trump’s circle, telling them they may be asked to come in for an interview. One person who was recently contacted said it is hard to find a lawyer available for advice on how to interact with the special counsel because so many Trump aides have already hired attorneys.

“It was kind of a pain,” the person said. “It’s hard to find a lawyer who wasn’t already conflicted out.”

People who have gone before Mueller’s team describe polite but detailed and intense grillings that at times have lasted all day and involved more than a dozen investigators. Spicer, for example, was in the office from about 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. for his fall session. Mueller’s team has recommended nearby lunch spots, but many witnesses have food brought in for fear of being spotted if they go outside.

Mueller has attended some interviews, introducing himself to witnesses when he enters and then sitting along the wall. Sometimes he is joined by his deputy, longtime friend and law partner James Quarles, a former Watergate prosecutor who is the main point of contact for the White House.

Investigators bring large binders filled with emails and documents into the interview room. One witness described the barrage of questions that followed each time an agent passed them a copy of an email they had been copied on: “Do you remember this email? How does the White House work? How does the transition work? Who was taking the lead on foreign contacts? How did that work? Who was involved in this decision? Who was there that weekend?”

Some witnesses were introduced to so many federal agents and lawyers that they later lamented that they had largely forgotten many of their names by the time one team left the room and a new team entered.

“They say, ‘Hey, we’re not trying to be rude, but people are going to come in and out a lot,’ ” one witness explained about the teams. “They kind of cycle in and out of the room.”

One contingent of investigators is focused on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice and head off the investigation into Russian meddling by firing Comey in May. Prosecutors Brandon Van Grack and Jeannie Rhee have been involved in matters related to Flynn.

Yet another team is led by the former head of the Justice Department’s fraud prosecutions, Andrew Weissman, and foreign bribery expert Greg Andres. Those investigators queried lobbyists from some of the most powerful lobby shops in town about their interactions with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign adviser Rick Gates.

Mueller’s team charged Manafort and Gates last month with engaging in a conspiracy to hide millions of dollars in foreign accounts and secretly creating an elaborate cover story to conceal their lobbying work for a former Ukrainian president and his pro-Russian political party. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Lawyers familiar with prosecutors’ questions about Manafort said they expect several more charges to come from this portion of the case.

People familiar with the Mueller team said they convey a sense of calm that is unsettling.

“These guys are confident, impressive, pretty friendly — joking a little, even,” one lawyer said. When prosecutors strike that kind of tone, he said, defense lawyers tend to think: “Uh oh, my guy is in a heap of trouble.”

Long Time Coming — Charles P. Pierce on the inevitability of the GOP passing this tax bill.

I confess. I gave up on the whole exercise Friday night around midnight when the Republican majority in the Senate passed an amendment to its Abomination of Desolation tax bill that was proposed by that remarkably friendless character, Tailgunner Ted Cruz. (I like to think that it was Cruz’s essential friendlessness that accounted for the fact that they needed Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie on the Cruz amendment.) The amendment would allow families to use money from 529 savings plans to send their kids to private and/or religious schools, or to homeschool their children themselves. Considering that this was in the context of passing a retrograde bill that would wipe out the deduction for state and local taxes, a move that would hit hardest the American families who send their children to public schools, this was too much even for my strong political stomach. The Republicans had the votes to make war on the very idea of the commons, and they were using them, and, shortly before two in the morning, they won, and the commons lost, and we awoke Saturday morning to a meaner, grubbier country.

It is still possible that the Republican members of the House of Representatives will don their animal skins, sharpen their bone knives, paint their faces blue, and go screaming off to war when this thing goes to conference, befouling Mitch McConnell’s delicate magical math with poo flung from all directions, but, as the Romans learned centuries ago, you shouldn’t try to bargain with barbarians, and I doubt the Republicans will make that mistake again, not after what happened with their attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

No, there will be some howling and wailing for show, but the barbarians are not going to save the country. All they’ll do is make a greasy operator like Mitch McConnell look reasonable. (And make vainglorious senators like Susan Collins and John McCain look more useless.) And, besides, with this foul bag of rags they passed on Friday night, the one that eliminates the individual mandate that is the engine behind the Affordable Care Act, they won that battle, too. I think the Senate conferees will agree to some adjustments from their colleagues in the House, all of which will make things worse. However, alas, I don’t think the country can count on the Republicans fumbling on the goal line this time around.

No, they got what they wanted, and they’re going to be quite happy with it. Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, knows he’s a giant step closer to his lifelong goal of demolishing the social safety net. All he has to do is wait for the inevitable explosion of the deficit, at which point he will screw on his sad-basset face and tell us that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are just things we can’t afford anymore. The members of the House will quickly agree that the Senate bill is OK by them and pass it quickly on to a half-mad Republican president who won’t understand a word of what he’s signing but … so much winning!

(By the way, you can feel free to skip any story over the next week that discusses the passage of this sack of cholera in terms of who won and who lost, as though it were a ballgame. It is in measuring the scope of what has been wrought on the country here where elite political journalism will continue to fail utterly.)

In fact, it is important to keep in mind that, all things being equal, this is a bill that would have been proposed and passed even if the Tailgunner, or Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich had been elected president last November. If the president* had been impeached by the end of business on Inauguration Day, this bill, and the sad carnival of how it was passed, wouldn’t have changed a bit. For such a huge and consequential assault on the political commonwealth, the president*’s fingerprints are remarkably absent from this bill, not because the president* is smart, because he’s not, but because the Senate Republicans didn’t need him.

This was not a Trump bill. This was a Republican bill, a kind of culmination of everything the party has stood for since Ronald Reagan fed it the monkeybrains in 1981 and the prion disease began slowly devouring the party’s higher functions. It is purely supply-side in its economics, purely retrograde in its attitude toward the political commons, and purely heedless in its concern for anyone except the donor class who keep the party alive. This is why the Republican party chose to ally itself 50 years ago with the sad detritus of American apartheid. This is why the Republican party set itself against the expansion of the franchise. This is why the Republican party set itself against any form of campaign-finance reform, and cheered the decision in Citizens United. All of these dynamics were in play long ago, back in the days when Donald Trump was a Democrat. The assault on the idea of a political commonwealth began back then and it rarely has abated. The only way what happened Friday night could have been avoided is if Hillary Rodham Clinton had been elected in November of 2016 and, if the Bernie people have a problem with my saying that, they can go up an alley and holler fish.

This is also why so many longtime conservative fetish objects got stuffed into this big barrel of botulism. Lisa Murkowski’s price was oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. (Murkowski at least struck a hard bargain. Collins got bought off with a promise that there will be no Medicare cuts in the future, which…) There was the comical attempt to slip in an exemption for Christian Hillsdale College, which has rehabilitated its image from the days when its president was accused of having an affair with his son’s wife. This failed because it was too ridiculous even for this bill, but I’m fairly sure it will be back. One amendment failed because it was handwritten and nobody could read it. We all really ducked a bullet there, boy.

The entire process was shot through with a contempt for democracy, and for “regular order,” which suddenly became less important for McCain than it used to be a few months ago. That’s because the bill itself was built on a foundation of contempt for the notion that, in a democracy, we all have a stake in what the government does, and for the notion that we have certain values and principles in common upon which we act. The bill that passed the Senate early Saturday morning has been consistently, wildly unpopular. It passed anyway.

When its full effects descend on the country, there will be a great outcry about how the government is entirely corrupt and about how it has grown so distant from the people it was designed to serve. “Politicians” will be blamed, irrespective of party. “Politics” will be blamed, irrespective of ideology. Alienation and anger will rise and, very likely, another demagogue will appear, more competent than the present one, and he will ride that alienation and anger into power, and the whole thing will happen all over again.

The Republicans will have no problem with that, either. In fact, they’re counting on it.

Faking It — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on how Trump’s attacks on the media has strengthened it.

Last December, Variety and other news outlets reported that Donald Trump planned to serve as an executive producer for “The Celebrity Apprentice” while he was President. Kellyanne Conway, appearing on CNN, defended the President-elect’s prerogatives, but the next day Trump tweeted that the story was “fake news.” Since then, he has tweeted about fake news more than a hundred and fifty times; on a single day in September, he did so eight times, in apparent frustration over coverage of his Administration’s response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. And, of course, Trump regularly invokes “the fake-news Russian-collusion story,” as he named it last summer. He has attacked coverage of the Russia investigation more than a dozen times on Twitter alone.

“One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake,’ ” Trump said on Mike Huckabee’s talk show, in October. (In fact, the phrase “fake news” has been around for more than a century.) The President’s strategy has been successful, however, in at least one respect: he has appropriated a term that had often been used to describe the propaganda and the lies masquerading as news, emanating from Russia and elsewhere, which proliferated on Facebook, YouTube, and other social-media platforms during the 2016 election campaign. These manufactured stories—“POPE FRANCIS SHOCKS WORLD, ENDORSES DONALD TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT,” among them—poisoned the news ecosystem and may have contributed to Trump’s victory.

Judging from the President’s tweets, his definition of “fake news” is credible reporting that he doesn’t like. But he complicates the matter by issuing demonstrably false statements of his own, which, inevitably, make news. Trump has brought to the White House bully pulpit a disorienting habit of telling lies, big and small, without evident shame. Since 2015, Politifact has counted three hundred and twenty-nine public statements by Trump that it judges to be mostly or entirely false. (In comparison, its count of such misstatements by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is thirteen.)

The President also publicizes calumnies that vilify minorities. Last Wednesday morning, he outdid himself by retweeting unverified, incendiary anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right group. Through a spokesman, Prime Minister Theresa May responded that Trump was “wrong” to promote the agenda of a group that spreads “hateful narratives which peddle lies.” The following day, members of Parliament denounced the President, using such epithets as “fascist” and “stupid.” It was a scene without precedent in the century-old military alliance between the United States and Britain.

Trump’s tactics echo those of previous nativist-populist politicians, but his tweets also draw on the contemporary idioms of the alt-right. This is a loose movement, as the researchers Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis have written, best understood as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people” who express “a self-referential culture in which anti-Semitism, occult ties, and Nazi imagery can be explained either as entirely sincere or completely tongue-in-cheek.” Trump is no alt-right digital-news geek, yet his Twitter feed is similarly ambiguous. He seems to provoke his opponents for the pleasure of offending them, but when he is called to account he often claims that he was just joking. Sometimes he promotes conspiracy theories to insult personal nemeses, as he did last week when he tweeted baseless speculation about the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s connection to the “unsolved mystery” of an intern’s death.

The President’s tweets slamming CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be comical and weird, but they do serious harm. Last week, a Libyan broadcaster cited one of Trump’s tweets about CNN in an attempt to discredit a report by the network on the persistence of slavery in that country. And, when the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.

At home, the Trump effect is more subtle, but corrosive. The First Amendment does not appear to be in existential danger; on the Supreme Court, Justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents endorse expansive ideas about free speech, even as they debate interpretations. Yet many of the rights that working journalists enjoy stem from state laws and from the case-by-case decisions of local judges. The climate that Trump has helped create may undermine some of these protections—for example, by prompting state legislatures to overturn shield laws that encode the rights of reporters to protect confidential sources.

Trump’s alignment with right-wing publishers, such as Infowars and Breitbart, some of which see Fox News as the old-school communications arm of an obsolete Republican establishment, reflects a broader fragmentation of the media. Amid the cacophony of the digital era, publishers and advertisers prize readers who are deeply engaged, not just clicking around sites. News organizations as distinct as the Times and Breitbart now think of their audiences as communities in formation, bound by common values. A more openly factional, political journalism need not portend the death of fact-driven, truth-seeking, fair-minded reporting. Yet excellent journalism typically follows a form of the scientific method, prioritizing evidence, transparency, and the replicability of findings; journalism grounded in an ideology can be discredited by the practitioner’s preëmptive assumptions.

Fortunately, in attacking the media Trump has in many ways strengthened it. This year, the Times, the Washington Post, and many other independent, professional enterprises have reminded the country why the Founders enshrined a free press as a defense against abusive power. Among other achievements, the media’s coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has made transparent the seriousness of its findings so far, and constrained the President’s transparent desire to interfere.

Last Friday, Mueller dropped his latest bombshell, a plea agreement with Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who admitted that, in January, he lied to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. The court papers filed with Flynn’s plea lay out a story of how senior members of the Trump transition team asked Flynn to communicate with Russian officials on matters of U.S. foreign policy. The papers also contain a reference to a discussion that Flynn had with “a very senior member” of the transition team, a characterization that suggests that the list of names of who that may be is a short one. The chances that history will remember Mueller’s investigation of Trump and his closest advisers as fake news grow slimmer by the day.

Doonesbury — A huge compliment.

Monday, November 27, 2017

They Did Nazi That Coming

Imagine the surprise at the New York Times when they got a huge backlash to their Saturday story about the nice polite vegan “Big Bang Theory”-loving Nazis in Ohio.

A profile in The Times of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer in Ohio, elicited a huge amount of feedback this weekend, most of it sharply critical. Here’s how the piece came about, why we wrote it and why we think it was important to do so.

The genesis of the story was the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August, the terrifying Ku Klux Klan-like images of young white men carrying tiki torches and shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and the subsequent violence that included the killing of a woman, Heather D. Heyer.

Basically they thought it would be a good story to put a human face on them.

Whatever our goal, a lot of readers found the story offensive, with many seizing on the idea we were normalizing neo-Nazi views and behavior. “How to normalize Nazis 101!” one reader wrote on Twitter. “I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,” wrote another. “Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups – should Never have been printed!”

Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.

We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.

We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear.

Good.  Now stop trying to make these people sound like regular, normal Americans.  They’re not, and we spent trillions of dollars and countless lives trying to eradicate this mindset 75 years ago.

We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.

Why do we need to shed more light on the extreme corners of America when we have a president who got into office by turning over those rocks and bringing them out into the sunshine?

To quote the pithy motto of the ADL and just about every decent person who values life and liberty, “Never again.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Beatings Will Continue

Peter Baker in the New York Times wonders where the outrage is.

After six months in office, Mr. Trump has crossed so many lines, discarded so many conventions, said and done so many things that other presidents would not have, that he has radically shifted the understanding of what is standard in the White House. He has moved the bar for outrage. He has a taste for provocation and relishes challenging Washington taboos. If the propriety police tut tut, he shows no sign of concern.

“His tweet is bizarre and unprecedented,” said James A. Thurber, the founder and former director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. And yet, “he has made so many outlandish statements, Americans seem to be immune to this latest call for investigating Hillary.”

[…]

By now, it takes more to shock. After all, this is a president who refused to release his tax returns or divest from his private businesses, who put his son-in-law and daughter on the White House staff, who accused his predecessor of illegally tapping his phones without proof, who fired the F.B.I. director leading an investigation into the president’s associates and who has now undercut his “beleaguered” attorney general in public. When he talked politics, jabbed the news media and told stories about Manhattan cocktail parties before tens of thousands of children at the nonpartisan National Scout Jamboree here in West Virginia on Monday, it was hardly surprising.

This kind of behavior will continue as long as there are those who enable, excuse, and treat him as if he and his id-driven antics are normal or acceptable.  It has nothing to do with decorum or manners or protocol; it’s dangerous and has the potential for body counts.

I understand why the Republicans on Capitol Hill are willing to go along; they’re happy to have someone else take the spotlight so they can get out of it whatever is in it for them.  They don’t and won’t care what he does as long as it doesn’t threaten their chances for re-election.  Of course when it does, they’ll blame it on him instead of their own toadyism.

But as long as he is treated as normal or, Dog forbid, “presidential” by the news media, including those who should know better or those who fear for their livelihood (“This is NPR”), it will continue.  Expecting him to change is a lost cause, but at least they can make the effort to try to raise the hue and cry and get him away from the levers of power and a Twitter account.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Legacy of Lies — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Sean Spicer’s record at the White House podium.

Sean Spicer’s resignation, on Friday morning, after six months of routinely lying from the White House lectern and then ending on-camera briefings altogether, once again raises one of the most important questions of the Trump era: What is the red line that Trump must cross for his aides to quit on principle? For Spicer, the answer was a new boss he didn’t like. Trump, over the objections of Spicer and Spicer’s closest White House ally, Reince Priebus, the President’s chief of staff, hired Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and frequent Trump surrogate on TV, as his new White House communications director.

The hire is unusual for several reasons. The role of communications director, a job that has been vacant since May, when Michael Dubke, a low-key Republican strategist, resigned from the position, is traditionally reserved for campaign operatives. Scaramucci is a Wall Street guy—he started at Goldman Sachs and later founded his own investment firms—and a former host on the Fox Business channel. Before the Trump campaign, his experience in politics was more on the fund-raising side than on the strategy side. In the Trump campaign, which was small, he took on a broader role as an adviser to the candidate and appeared frequently on TV, where he stood out because he was less ideological than the usual pro-Trump pundits.

More unusual is the way Scaramucci was hired. In a normal White House, the chief of staff is in charge of hiring. For the President to overrule his chief of staff on such an important position is an enormous embarrassment for Priebus. During a briefing on Friday afternoon, Scaramucci tried to downplay the friction between him and Priebus, but for months he has been telling people of his frustrations with the chief of staff. Scaramucci was originally asked to run the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, but Priebus blocked Scaramucci from taking the job, even after Scaramucci sold his investment firm to take it.

Scaramucci then appealed directly to Trump to find him another position. He had three meetings scheduled with the President, and they were all cancelled. Scaramucci believed that Priebus, who is in charge of Trump’s schedule, worked to keep him away from Trump. Scaramucci “had to go over the top and directly to the President,” a source familiar with the episode said. “The problem is that Trump is in such a bubble now, he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.” Scaramucci was offered the ambassadorship to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Europe.

If Priebus thought he had rid the White House of Scaramucci, he was wrong. In recent weeks, Scaramucci was a familiar figure at the Trump Hotel in Washington, meeting with reporters and Trump advisers. Ostensibly, he was there because he was working as an official at the D.C.-based Export-Import Bank. But, clearly, something else was in the works.

For Spicer, Trump’s decision to install Scaramucci above him—the press secretary reports to the communications director—was too much to take. Given the highs and lows of Spicer’s time at the White House, this was an unusual choice of hills to die on. Spicer began his tenure as press secretary with a bizarre rant about how Trump’s Inauguration audience “was the largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration, period.” (It wasn’t.) For someone who was never fully inside the Trump circle of trust, the performance had the ring of an eager gang initiate committing a crime to please the boss. Trump, who regularly watched the briefings, which were broadcast live on cable news, reportedly complained about Spicer’s pale suits and later seemed to become aggravated that Spicer was becoming famous, or at least infamous. Spicer’s temper tantrums, ill-fitting suits, and mispronunciations turned him into a pop-culture sensation.

But it was Spicer’s lies and defense of lies that he will be remembered for. Spicer defended Trump’s lie about how there were three million fraudulent votes in the 2016 election. He spent weeks using shifting stories to defend Trump’s lie about President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. In trying to explain the urgency of the attack on Syria, Spicer explained, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Last week, he lied about the nature of the meeting at Trump Tower in June, 2016, between senior Trump-campaign officials and several people claiming to have information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. “There was nothing, as far as we know, that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for discussion about adoption,” Spicer claimed, bizarrely, because Donald Trump, Jr., had already admitted that the meeting was about Russian dirt on Clinton. On March 10th, Spicer came to the lectern wearing an upside-down American flag, which is a signal of dire distress.

Despite the repeated humiliations of standing before reporters and saying things he had to know were untrue, what finally made working at the White House intolerable for Spicer was a minor staffing issue. Scaramucci comes to his new job with a good reputation. He is not a conservative ideologue—he is pro-choice, a moderate on gun control, and anti-death penalty—and he is well-liked by reporters. But working for Trump can have a corrosive effect on good people. Scaramucci’s task is to, without sacrificing his own reputation, communicate on behalf of a President who routinely lies. Scaramucci has his work cut out for him.

Saving Planned Parenthood — Becca Andrews in Mother Jones on how an obscure Senate rule may have saved Planned Parenthood.

Planed Parenthood received good news late Friday afternoon: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough released a determination that says certain provisions in the Republican’s latest Obamacare replacement bill, the “Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA),” violate the 1985 Byrd Rule. That means some of the bill’s provisions—including the one to defund Planned Parenthood for one year—cannot pass without a full 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans currently only hold 52 of the Senate’s seats.

The Byrd Rule, named after Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, states that any legislation that directly affects the federal budget by decreasing spending or increasing revenue can be passed through reconciliation, the process that Republicans are using to try and pass their latest health care law. But some of the bill’s provisions don’t appear to qualify: As my colleague Kevin Drum points out, the provision that would prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds probably “doesn’t pass muster because it doesn’t affect total spending, only where money can be spent.” “This means that, should the Senate proceed to the bill, these provisions may be struck from the legislation absent 60 votes,” the parliamentarian’s decision explains.

“Targeting Planned Parenthood because we provide abortion is an obvious violation of the Byrd Rule because the provision’s primary intent is clearly political, and the budgetary impact is ‘merely incidental’ to that purpose,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Other casualties of the bill include the replacement to Obamacare’s individual mandate, which under the BCRA would have meant that anyone who had a lapse in coverage for more than a month and then signed up on the exchange would have had to wait six months for full coverage to take effect. The parliamentarian also stated that the measure in the BCRA to restrict federal tax credits from being used for abortion violates the Byrd Rule.

It’s possible that Republicans will try to overturn the parliamentarian’s decision, but doing so would violate decades of precedent in the Senate.

Sky Faerie — Clay Routledge in the New York Times on defining religion.

Are Americans becoming less religious? It depends on what you mean by “religious.”

Polls certainly indicate a decline in religious affiliation, practice and belief. Just a couple of decades ago, about 95 percent of Americans reported belonging to a religious group. This number is now around 75 percent. And far fewer are actively religious: The percentage of regular churchgoers may be as low as 15 to 20 percent. As for religious belief, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.

Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt the death of religion, or at least the death of what you might call the “religious mind” — our concern with existential questions and our search for meaning. A growing body of research suggests that the evidence for a decline in traditional religious belief, identity and practice does not reflect a decline in this underlying spiritual inclination.

Ask yourself: Why are people religious to begin with? One view is that religion is an ancient way of understanding and organizing the world that persists largely because societies pass it down from generation to generation. This view is related to the idea that the rise of science entails the fall of religion. It also assumes that the strength of religion is best measured by how much doctrine people accept and how observant they are.

This view, however, does not capture the fundamental nature of the religious mind — our awareness of, and need to reckon with, the transience and fragility of our existence, and how small and unimportant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. In short: our quest for significance.

Dozens of studies show a strong link between religiosity and existential concerns about death and meaning. For example, when research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind or challenge a sense of meaning in life, they exhibit increased religiosity and interest in religious or spiritual ideas. Another body of research shows that religious beliefs provide and protect meaning.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?

 Doonesbury — House hunt.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Reading

“The Meddlesome Priest” — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on the White House’s conundrum on how to deal with James Comey.

“Should I take one of the killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news—should I do that?” Donald Trump said on Friday afternoon, at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden. It didn’t matter which correspondent he called on. Every one of them wanted to ask about the same thing: the testimony that the former F.B.I. director James Comey had given on Thursday. “Go ahead, Jon,” he said, gesturing toward Jonathan Karl, of ABC News. Since he took office, the President’s personality hasn’t changed much, but his King Lear tendency is deepening. Before Karl could ask his question, Trump started musing aloud. “Be fair, Jon,” he said. “Remember how nice you used to be before I ran?”

“Always fair, Mr. President,” Karl said, and then he asked Trump about Comey, who had testified under oath that the President had spoken to him about the Bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, and had urged him to “let this go.” Karl wanted to know whether Trump agreed with Comey’s account of their conversation. “I didn’t say that,” Trump said. So had Comey lied? “There’d be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody I’ve read today, but I did not say that,” Trump said. This muddied his defense. If he hadn’t tried to get Comey to squash the investigation, why mention that it wouldn’t have been a big deal if he had?

Karl pressed on. Comey had also testified that, at a private dinner in January, Trump had asked for his personal loyalty. Trump said that this was not true either. Karl asked if the President would be willing to testify under oath to this. “One hundred per cent,” Trump said. And that gave the situation a useful clarity: either Comey was lying or Trump was. The President started gesticulating. “I hardly know the man,” he said. “Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense.”

In the wake of Thursday’s testimony, the White House is going after Comey, trying to neutralize the threat that his words pose. But the attacks have been convoluted. It has been clear since Trump fired Comey that the former F.B.I. director would have a central and threatening role in the theatre of this Presidency, yet neither Trump nor his advisers and allies seem to have figured out what to say about him.

On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway filibustered her way through an interview on Fox News, insisting that, while Washington was in a tizzy over Comey, the White House was diligently working on policy. She was evidently the good cop. The bad cop was Corey Lewandowski, apparently back in Trump’s good graces, dispatched to the morning shows on Friday to explain that Comey was part of “the deep state” that is out to humiliate Trump. In a tweet, Trump called Comey a “leaker.” Later, at the press conference, Trump described him as both a liar and a tool of Democratic Party. “That was an excuse by the Democrats, who lost an election they shouldn’t have lost,” Trump said.

Comey’s advantage over the President is that he paid close attention during their conversations, wrote down his impressions immediately after the conversations took place, and then shared these notes with others. Comey noticed the way that the President asked the Vice-President, the Attorney General, and his own son-in-law to leave the room before talking to him about the Flynn investigation. Comey noticed when the President was trying to hug him and when he was putting his future as F.B.I. director in question. He noticed the exact words that the President used when he tried to goad him to “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” He noticed the grandfather clock in the Oval Office, and the Navy stewards, and the time Trump called his cell phone when he was getting into a helicopter with the head of the D.E.A., and how he once had to return a call from the President through the White House switchboard.

Comey is hard to miss—six feet eight, with popped marionette eyes. But it seems that the White House never really got a good look at him. Was he a Democratic partisan, or an agent of the deep state, or the star of some self-aggrandizing melodrama (a “showboat,” the President told NBC’s Lester Holt a few weeks ago, and a “grandstander”)? Maybe if Trump had noticed the awkwardness with which (if we believe Comey’s account) the F.B.I. director ducked out of a hug, or the belabored way in which he avoided pledging his loyalty, Trump would have realized sooner that Comey was not his friend, and not part of his cadre. And perhaps his aides would have a clearer way of describing the man they are now trying to impugn.

At the press conference on Friday—on a bright June afternoon—Trump stood podium to podium with President Klaus Iohannis, of Romania, a muscular former physics teacher from Transylvania. The Comey-centered questions emanating from the American press corps alternated with wider-ranging queries from the travelling press.

One Romanian journalist, a young woman, asked the two Presidents whether, in their one-on-one meeting, they had talked about giving Romania access to a visa-waiver program. “We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said, and then, after saying he’d be open to accommodating Romania, gestured over to Iohannis.

“I mentioned this,” the Romanian President said, perhaps trying to be politic. To his left, Trump just nodded. Had he noticed the difference?

Could Jon Ossoff Win?  — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the special election in Georgia.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped a new poll of the most expensive special congressional election in history, and it is good news for Democrat Jon Ossoff and liberals across the country who have placed inordinately high stakes on Georgia’s 6th District just six months after a Republican cruised to reelection there by 23 points. According to the AJC, Ossoff leads Republican Karen Handel by 7 points, 51 to 44, which is outside the margin of error. Another poll released Thursday showed Ossoff with a 3-point lead, 50 to 47.

The election is still 11 days away, but early voting began a week and a half ago and is proceeding at a rapid clip that is almost on par with the early-voting turnout of the 2016 presidential election.

An Ossoff win wouldn’t make much of a dent in the Republican majority in the House, and after raising $23 million (a record for a House candidate who is not self-funding), he’d likely to have to raise a ton of money again as a top Republican target in 18 months. But Democrats have latched onto the seat, previously held by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (and, years earlier, Newt Gingrich), as a way to make a major statement months into President Donald Trump’s term. Hillary Clinton nearly carried the district during her presidential campaign, and the Democrats’ strategy for retaking the House hinges on replicating that success—not just in Georgia’s 6th but in similar affluent suburban districts in California, Kansas, Texas, and elsewhere. An Ossoff win would be a strong signal that they can, and it would hand an energized grassroots a badly needed breakthrough.

Republican criticism of Ossoff has mostly focused on personal issues, such as his youth, his support from national Democrats, a brief stint making documentaries for Al Jazeera, and, bizarrely, a video of a college-age Ossoff dressed as Han Solo. To the disappointment of some on the party’s left flank, Ossoff has run openly as a moderate; he told reporters recently that he opposed a single-payer health care plan (which is fast becoming the party’s new standard) and in a historically conservative district has focused on issues like cutting government waste and promoting the tech industry.

But one big progressive plank he has adopted—support for a living wage—produced one of the campaign’s signature moments. At a debate on Monday, Ossoff and Handel were asked if they supported raising the minimum wage to a “livable wage.” (The questioner did not specify an amount, but the most common figure thrown out by proponents is $15 an hour.) Ossoff said yes. Handel very much did not.

“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative: I do not support a livable wage,” she said. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”

Meanwhile, Democrats seem encouraged enough by Ossoff’s performance in the suburbs north of Atlanta to have recently added another suburban Georgia seat to their target list next year: the 7th District, currently represented by Republican Rob Woodall. This week, Woodall got his first Democratic opponent.

Policies?  What Policies? — Derek Thompson in The Atlantic on what Trump isn’t going to be doing.

It’s “Infrastructure Week” at the White House. Theoretically.

On Monday, the administration announced a plan to spend $200 billion on infrastructure and overhaul U.S. air traffic control. There was a high-profile signing in the East Wing before dozens of cheering lawmakers and industry titans. It was supposed to be the beginning of a weeklong push to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports.

But in the next two days, Trump spent more energy burning metaphorical bridges than trying to build literal ones. He could have stayed on message for several hours, gathered Democrats and Republicans to discuss a bipartisan agreement, and announced a timeframe. Instead he quickly turned his attention to Twitter to accuse media companies of “Fake News” while undermining an alliance with Qatar based on what may be, fittingly, a fake news story.

It’s a microcosm of this administration’s approach to public policy. A high-profile announcement, coupled with an ambitious promise, subsumed by an unrelated, self-inflicted public-relations crisis, followed by … nothing.

The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

Consider the purported focus of this week. An infrastructure plan ought to include actual proposals, like revenue-and-spending details and timetables. The Trump infrastructure plan has little of that. Even the president’s speech on Monday was devoid of specifics. (An actual line was: “We have studied numerous countries, one in particular, they have a very, very good system; ours is going to top it by a lot.”) The ceremonial signing on Monday was pure theater. The president, flanked by politicians and businesspeople smiling before the twinkling of camera flashes, signed a paper that merely asks Congress to work on a bill. An assistant could have done that via email. Meanwhile, Congress isn’t working on infrastructure at all, according to Politico, and Republicans have shown no interest in a $200 billion spending bill.

In short, this “plan” is not a plan, so much as a Potemkin policy, a presentation devised to show the press and the public that the president has an economic agenda. The show continued on Wednesday, as the president delivered an infrastructure speech in Cincinnati that criticized Obamacare, hailed his Middle East trip, and offered no new details on how his plan would work. Infrastructure Week is a series of scheduled performances to make it look as if the president is hard at work on a domestic agenda that cannot move forward because it does not exist.

Journalists are beginning to catch on. The administration’s policy drought has so far been obscured by a formulaic bait-and-switch strategy one could call the Two-Week Two-Step. Bloomberg has compiled several examples of the president promising major proposals or decisions on everything from climate-change policy to infrastructure “in two weeks.” He has missed the fortnight deadline almost every time.

The starkest false promise has been taxes. “We’re going to be announcing something I would say over the next two or three weeks,” Trump said of tax reform in early February. Eleven weeks later, in late April, the White House finally released a tax proposal. It was hardly one page long.

Arriving nine weeks late, the document was so vague that tax analysts marveled that they couldn’t even say how it would work. Even its authors are confused: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly declined to say whether the plan will cut taxes on the rich, even though cutting taxes on the rich is ostensibly the centerpiece. Perhaps it’s because he needs more help: None of the key positions for making domestic tax policy have been filled. There is no assistant secretary for tax policy, nor deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis, according to the Treasury Department.

Once again, the simplest summary of White House tax policy is: There is no plan. There isn’t even a complete staff to compose one.

The story is slightly different for the White House budget, but no more favorable. The budget suffers, not from a lack of details, but from a failure of numeracy that speaks to the administration’s indifference toward serious public policy. The authors double-counted a projected benefit from higher GDP growth, leading to $2 trillion math error, perhaps the largest ever in a White House proposal. The plan included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue from the estate tax, which appears to be another mistake, since the White House has separately proposed eliminating it.

Does the president’s budget represent what the president’s policies will be? It should, after all. But asked this very question, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, made perhaps the strangest claim of all: “I wouldn’t take what’s in the budget as indicative of what our proposals are,” he said.

This haphazard approach extends to the repeal of Obamacare, which may yet pass the Senate, but with little help or guidance from the president. Trump has allowed House Speaker Paul Ryan to steer the Obamacare-replacement bill, even though it violates the president’s campaign promises to expand coverage and protect Medicaid. After its surprising passage in the House, he directly undercut it on Twitter by suggesting he wants to raise federal health spending. Even on the most basic question of health-care policy—should spending go up, or down?—the president’s Twitter account and his favored law are irreconcilable. A law cannot raise and slash health care funding at the same time. The Trump health care plan does not exist.

It would be a mistake to call this a policy-free presidency. Trump has signed several executive orders undoing Obama-era regulations, removing environmental protections, and banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He has challenged NATO and pulled out of the Paris Accords. But these accomplishments all have one thing in common: Trump was able to do them alone. Signing executive orders and making a speech don’t require the participation of anybody in government except for the president.

It’s no surprise that a former chief executive of a private company would be more familiar with the presumption of omnipotence than the reality of divided powers. As the head of his own organization, Trump could make unilateral orders that subordinates would have to follow. But passing a law requires tireless persuasion and the cooperation of hundreds of representatives in the House and Senate who cannot be fired for insubordination. Being the president of the United States is nothing like being a CEO, especially not one of an eponymous family company.

Republicans in the House and Senate don’t need the president’s permission to write laws, either. Still, they too have struggled to get anything done. Several GOP senators say they may not repeal Obamacare this year—or ever. It is as if, after seven years of protesting Obamacare, the party lost the muscle memory to publicly defend and enact legislation.

In this respect, Trump and his party are alike—united in their antagonism toward Obama-era policies and united in their inability to articulate what should come next. Republicans are trapped by campaign promises that they cannot fulfill. The White House is trapped inside of the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of economic promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation. With an administration that uses public policy as little more than a photo op, get ready for many sequels to this summer’s Infrastructure Week.

 Doonesbury — Despatches.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Stop The Presses

Included in the story about Trump trying to get James Comey to put the kibosh on the Flynn investigation is this little nugget of suppression.  Via TPM:

Trump suggested to ousted FBI Director James Comey that journalists who publish classified information should be jailed, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

The Times, citing unnamed associates of Comey’s describing memos he kept recording his meetings with Trump, reported the discussion came in a meeting on Feb. 14.

Alone in the Oval Office, the Times reported, Trump asked Comey to end the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, who Trump had a day earlier fired as his National Security Adviser.

The Times also reported that “Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.”

There’s a little thing called a “court of law” and a “trial” that come between an accusation and prison.  But something as trivial as the rule of law is clearly not something Trump is concerned about.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Now They’re Going After The First Amendment

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told ABC’s Jonathan Karl that it would be a good idea to abolish or amend the First Amendment because the press is being mean to Trump.

I’m not kidding.

KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?

PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—

KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?

PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.

KARL: I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. It’s about whether or not the President should have a right to sue them.

PRIEBUS: And I already answered the question. I said this is something that is being looked at. But it’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue. [Emphasis added.]

These bastards should be impeached and thrown out of office just for saying it out loud.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why Don’t You Love Me?

There’s been a lot of unpacking of Trump’s AP interview that was posted last weekend, but this part, highlighted and emphasis added by Josh Marshall at TPM, is both pathetic and scary.

TRUMP: You have to love people. And if you love people, such a big responsibility. (unintelligible) You can take any single thing, including even taxes. I mean we’re going to be doing major tax reform. Here’s part of your story, it’s going to be a big (unintelligible). Everybody’s saying, “Oh, he’s delaying.” I’m not delaying anything. I’ll tell you the other thing is (unintelligible). I used to get great press. I get the worst press. I get such dishonest reporting with the media. That’s another thing that really has — I’ve never had anything like it before. It happened during the primaries, and I said, you know, when I won, I said, “Well the one thing good is now I’ll get good press.” And it got worse. (unintelligible) So that was one thing that a little bit of a surprise to me. I thought the press would become better, and it actually, in my opinion, got more nasty.

You would have to be the world’s biggest ignoramus not to know that just being president means that you’re going to be attacked in the press.  It is as much a part of the deal as the big airplane and the Secret Service.  Did he honestly think that any of his predecessors automatically got good press just because they won?  Really?  Name one.

He sounds like a petulant and spoiled child, which, regardless of the job he holds, is sad and pathetic in a grown man of 70.

It’s scary because the presidency is not there to make you happy, and we have seen what people with thin skins have done when they also have a lot of power at their ready.  They lash out, and when they do, there are body counts.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Cracking Under Pressure

It’s not a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but you can get an idea of how things are going at the White House by how they deal with the press.  Based on this exchange, I’d say things aren’t going too well inside the West Wing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer finally seemed to reach a breaking point Tuesday when it comes to questions about President Trump and Russia.

Spicer got testy in an exchange with American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan after Ryan announced a premise that Spicer disagreed with: that the White House has a Russia issue to deal with. By the end, Spicer accused Ryan of pushing her own agenda and even instructed her not to shake her head at him.

“No, we don’t have that,” Spicer said when Ryan cited the White House’s Russia issue. When Ryan continued with her question, he cut in again: “No, no. I get it. But I’ve said it from the day that I got here until whenever that there’s not a connection. You’ve got Russia.”

Spicer then offered this zinger: “If the president puts Russian salad dressing on his salad tonight, somehow that’s a Russian connection.”

When Ryan tried again to ask her question, Spicer said, “I appreciate your agenda here. … At some point, report the facts.”

Spicer pointed to those who have said there is no proof of collusion between Russia and the Trump team — which is true but is only a part of the inquiries and is still being investigated by the FBI. He added, “I’m sorry that that disgusts you. You’re shaking your head.”

Spicer then told Ryan that she was “going to have to take no for an answer” when it came to the idea of collusion with Russia.

Ryan moved on, asking about former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s visit to the White House and the fact that she wasn’t a Trump supporter. But Spicer again took issue.

“It seems like you’re hellbent on trying to make sure that whatever image you want to tell about this White House stays,” Spicer said.

After some more back-and-forth, Spicer again spotted Ryan shaking her head and told her, “Please, stop shaking your head again.”

What are the chances that Spicer would have treated a white male like that?  Somewhere between “hell” and “no.”

Melissa McCarthy will probably be doing another cold opening for SNL this week.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Story Isn’t The Story

Rachel Maddow came in for some criticism yesterday for, in the words of one totally not-jealous pundit, “overselling” her story on getting hold of two pages of Trump’s 2005 tax returns.  I saw more headlines about how she allowed the White House the chance to bigfoot her scoop and release the documents (and give Trump the bizarre opportunity to tweet that what the White House said was his real return was actually “fake news”).  The result was that more folks were talking about what Rachel Maddow did than the real story: Trump still hasn’t released all of his taxes, and those that he has paint him in a false light.

Actually the real story should also be that the press, either through laziness or fear of an early-morning tweetstorm, isn’t doing its job, and when one member of the press does what closely resembles her duty, she gets cat-called for it by members of her own profession.

This is ridiculous.  In this country where the press is one of the few human endeavors that is specifically protected from government intrusion in the Constitution, there should be an awareness of the duty the press has in our democracy.  It isn’t just reporting the news, it’s holding us — all of us — accountable regardless of the person or personality delivering the news.

Charlie Pierce:

There is a line of thought, beloved of the clergy of that which Jay Rosen calls The Church of the Savvy, that holds that this whole thing was a clever scam by the White House—and, indeed, that the administration may have been the source of the leak. But overrating the cleverness of this crowd has become reflexive. A lot of what they’ve done is just stupid, their efforts at spin control an insult to the memory of Michael Deaver, and their strategy roughly on the level of, as President Jed once put it, “Hey, your shoe’s untied!” Chief among these explanations is the notion that this was meant to be a distraction from the other bad news engulfing the White House on the subjects of healthcare and whatever-the-hell James Comey is going to say next.

However, if the distraction argument is true, then it is a massive dereliction of duty on the part of the members of the media who make it true. In essence, coming from anyone in this business, the distraction argument denies that the media has any agency in what it covers. If you are an editor—or a reporter—and you decide that a story is a shiny object, then don’t cover it. Or, at the very least, don’t emphasize it. The decision by the elite political media to make Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server a central issue in the campaign was a deliberate choice. It wasn’t forced on them by anyone or anything. If you can choose to emphasize something, you can choose not to do that. If you can choose to concentrate on HRC’s email practices, you can choose not to concentrate on what you judge to be obvious diversions from the White House.

Do your freaking job.

The idea that the safety and security of our country — and the reporting of the state of the union — is devolving to middle-school-level squabbling and preening is not just alarming.  It’s dangerous.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Reading

Do Your Job, Media — Sophia A. McClennen in Salon on the press caving to Trump’s propaganda.

On Nov. 13, 1969, then Vice President Spiro Agnew passionately denounced television news broadcasters as a biased “unelected elite” who subjected President Richard M. Nixon’s speeches to instant analysis. Disagreeing with the views expressed by broadcasters like Walter Cronkite, Agnew argued that the president had a “right” to communicate directly with the people without having his words “characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics.” When Agnew went on to call for greater government regulation of the media’s “virtual monopoly” on public information, Cronkite responded that such a call was “an implied threat to freedom of speech in this country.”

Sound familiar?

Many have argued that President Donald Trump’s administration has borrowed heavily from the Nixon-Agnew playbook. Trump referenced the “silent majority” throughout his campaign — a term that Nixon popularized in a 1969 speech. When Trump repeatedly attacks the press, calling the media the “enemy of the people,” it’s easy to hear echoes of Agnew.

But while members of the Trump team draw on their predecessors, it would be a mistake to see a complete pattern match. One can only wonder what would have happened if Nixon had access to Twitter and we can only guess at the possibility of a Nixon-era Steve Bannon in the White House. While tabloid news like that found in the National Enquirer has a much longer history than today’s alt-news, we never have had such an open and obvious propaganda machine coming out of the White House.

Agnew referred to the press as an “unelected elite.” Trump’s chief strategist Bannon raised him one and has described the press as the “opposition party.” Trump’s endless press slurs are too numerous to even list. And these are just the open and public attacks. As Carole Cadwalladr has chillingly recounted for The Guardian, the backstory is the way that big-data billionaire and Trump supporter Robert Mercer is waging war on the mainstream media. According to her, his goal is nothing short of changing the way the entire nation thinks.

The Trump attacks on the press are not just Nixon 2.0. In fact, they literally have no historical precedent.

Here’s the thing, though: These attacks should actually be good news for the press. Recall that well before Trump had any idea he was going to win, the public’s trust in the press was at an all-time low. A Gallup poll from September 2016 showed that Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had dropped to the lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only 32 percent of those polled saying they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. That number was down 8 percentage points from 2015.

Given the clearly unhinged ways that Trump, Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway make things up, attack critics and fumble with even basic parts of speech, the press should be having a field day. Then there is the ongoing question of Trump’s endless conflicts of interest. Add to that the blatant disregard for civil rights, the selection of Cabinet members who generally hate the mission of the departments they lead, the basic disrespect for any system of checks and balances, and it seems clear that the press should be well on its way to regaining public trust.

Trump is literally dismantling government before our eyes while spitting on the First Amendment. It’s an easy story to go after and it should be turning the press into our hero.

So far it’s not.

Sure, there is lots of good investigative reporting coming from independent news sources and even from some mainstream outlets, but the Trump era shows no signs of a Bob Woodward or a Carl Bernstein. And no one on mainstream television news comes close to Cronkite.

Remember when Stephen Colbert roasted President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006? At that time news media outlets had largely swallowed the narrative offered them by the Bush administration. So Colbert chose to use his speech to roast the media as much as Bush. He started off saying, “Over the last five years you people were so good, over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”

Colbert reminded his listeners that the media had simply failed to fact-check the White House as the Bush administration led us into war, denied climate change and lowered taxes on the rich. He riffed on the idea that it seemed as if all media outlets did was repeat what the press secretary told them. He mocked media organizations, saying all they had to do was put White House comments “through a spell-check and go home.”

Colbert chastised the news media: “Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”

If we weren’t watching carefully, we might think that today’s press has finally listened to Colbert.

But certainly this is a news media that doesn’t take everything press secretary Spicer says to be fact. If anything, the opposite is true. The news media seems ready to pounce on any and everything coming out of the White House.

That is just one of the many ways that the press is blowing it.

As Jon Stewart illustrated brilliantly in a cameo for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the press needs to “break up with Trump.” Despite the existence of what seems to be investigative reporting, what we really have is a mainstream press obsessed with each and every little thing Trump does.

Why does CNN report on Trump using tape to hold down a tie? Why does ABC follow his rants about Arnold Schwarzenegger? And how does the Associated Press defend publishing the email addresses of Mike Pence and his wife? It may not have been meant as doxing, but it certainly isn’t good journalism.

This means that when the White House chief of staff, Reince Preibus, goes after news media outlets and accuses them of “acting like Washington daily gossip magazines,” there is sadly too much truth to what he says.

The point is that members of the mainstream press have a chance to rescue their image and offer the public the truth in the midst of the most outrageously dishonest administration in history. Instead, they seem to be favoring the exact same sort of fear-based, hyperbolic, spectacle-heavy reporting we had during the Bush years.

To make it worse, even when news outlets cover an important story, they literally bury the lede. Rather than open stories on Trump by pointing out that he is once again going off the rails, they open with details of the actual rant.

Consider, for example, Trump’s baseless accusation that Obama wiretapped him. The Washington Post ran an AP story with this headline: “Trump Accuses Obama of Tapping His Phones, Cites No Evidence.” When CNN ran the story, it opened with Trump’s claims and captured Trump’s tweets. It was only after several paragraphs that CNN reported quotes from experts who dismissed Trump’s accusations.

The point, as Gleb Tsipursky, an Ohio State University professor, has argued, is that only those who read deep into a story will get the true picture. Meanwhile the 6 in 10 who read only headlines will come away believing false information. He explained, “Thinking errors will cause the majority of Americans to develop a mistaken impression of Trump’s wiretapping claims as legitimate, despite the lack of evidence.”

Another key problem is the accusation that the media is biased against Trump. Every single member of the Trump team makes this claim. In response, we see the mainstream news media attempt to suggest impartiality and ensure “balance” by assembling panels of experts with  opposing views.

But it is not the news media’s job to be neutral; its job is to report the truth.

Before we wait for the press to pull itself together and offer the public the reporting that’s needed, we would do well to remember that it may well be the case that we can thank the mainstream news media for Trump’s win.

As Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy reported in December, the press failed U.S. voters. The center found most coverage had been negative in tone and light on policy. An earlier study showed that in 2015 Trump received disproportionate coverage in the press, given his low status in the polls. During the primaries, Trump’s coverage was also generally positive in tone, and he received far more “good press” than “bad press.”

The Shorenstein center concluded that the volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of polls of Republicans: “Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience.” And the center also pointed out that “Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories” and referred to Trump as the first “bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”

It turns out that the story of Trump as a whirling dervish of insanity may well perfectly fit the mainstream media’s desire for click-bait. But simply covering the next Trump meltdown is not what we need. What we need is accurate and fearless reporting of the issues that are important for the health of our democracy.

Rather than ask news media outlets to go after Trump, we should pressure them to follow Cronkite’s playbook and go after the truth.

How Trumpcare Will Make the Opioid Epidemic Worse — Julia Lurie in Mother Jones.

During his campaign, President Donald Trump said his supporters were “always” bringing up one issue: the opioid epidemic. “We’re going to take all of these kids—and people, not just kids—that are totally addicted and they can’t break it,” he promised at a Columbus, Ohio town hall meeting last August. “We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.”

Yet in the midst of the largest drug epidemic in the nation’s history, the Republican plan to replace Obamacare threatens to cut insurance coverage for mental health and addiction treatment for millions of Americans. The effect, public health advocates worry, would be to further decrease access to substance abuse treatment at a time when drug overdoses are claiming more 50,000 American lives per year—more than car accidents or gun violence.

Their concerns with the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare, titled the American Health Care Act, fall into two broad categories: The legislation limits who qualifies for public insurance, and it eliminates the requirement that many insurance plans cover substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Freezing Medicaid expansion

One of the most significant (and controversial) parts of Obamacare was a provision that expanded Medicaid to millions more poor Americans. Under the Affordable Care Act, those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for this government-funded insurance program. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states could choose whether or not they wanted to participate in the program, and 31 states have done so—resulting in health coverage for an additional 11 million Americans through Medicaid expansion. Of those, an estimated 1.3 million used their newly acquired insurance for substance abuse or mental health services, according to an analysis by researchers Richard Frank of Harvard Medical School and Sherry Glied of New York University.

The Republicans’ health care plan would freeze Medicaid expansion, cutting off funds for states adding new enrollees starting in 2020. Those already enrolled in Medicaid expansion plans by 2020 would continue to receive the benefits, but they would be at constant risk of losing that insurance. Anyone who has a gap in insurance coverage of more a month—say because they miss a deadline or their income temporarily changes—would lose eligibility. (A lack of private health insurance would be penalized too: Going more than 63 days without coverage would increase premiums by 30 percent for a year.) These provisions have a lot of public health advocates worried. It’s not uncommon for people, particularly those with serious mental health and addiction problems, to drift in and out of insurance coverage.

Eliminating “essential” services

Under Obamacare, insurers are required to offer so-called “essential health benefits,” including mental health and substance abuse services. In order to sell insurance, insurers have to cover addiction treatment. (Other essential benefits currently include contraception, preventative care, and emergency services—here’s the full list). That set of guarantees also applied to how states must structure their Medicaid programs.

The GOP plan would remove the entire package of essential benefit requirements, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, from Medicaid expansion insurance, as well as from some other Medicaid plans. Starting in 2020, each state could choose whether the insurance offered by Medicaid would include these benefits. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), an outspoken critic of the legislation, pressed GOP lawyers on the matter on Wednesday:

Medicaid, which provides insurance coverage for more than 70 million Americans, is the largest payer for addiction services across the country. Eliminating a chunk of that funding could be particularly crippling for many of the communities that voted Trump into office, notes Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who advised the Obama administration on drug policy.

West Virginia and Ohio, for example, have some of the highest rates of opioid overdoses in the country. In those states, which both adopted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, Medicaid pays for more than 40 percent of the cost of buprenorphine, a life-saving opioid addiction medication. “This will hurt the worst in the places that supported these politicians the most,” says Humphreys. “They voted in this Congress that is now going to stick a knife in them.”

Sucker Punched — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on Trump’s phony populism.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader, went on Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night and tried to talk up the awful health-care bill that his party had just rushed through two committees. His message was aimed at the ultra-conservative groups, such as the Freedom Caucus and Heritage Action for America, that have come out strongly against the proposed legislation. McCarthy didn’t try to claim that the bill would make health care more affordable or widely available. Instead, he defended its conservative bona fides, twice pointing out that it would repeal all the taxes that were introduced under the Affordable Care Act—taxes that mainly hit the one per cent.

Hannity, who is one of President Trump’s biggest boosters, didn’t hide his loyalties or his concern about the political firestorm that the bill has set off. “This has to work: there is no option here,” he said at one point. Later, he warned, “As soon as it passes, you own it.”

Intentionally or not, Hannity summed up the political dilemma facing Trump and his Administration. The White House has embraced Paul Ryan’s handiwork—the House Speaker is the bill’s top backer—and they are now trying together to persuade the full House and the Senate to vote for at least some version of it. But if the bill does pass and Trump signs it into law, what happens then? The health-care industry will be thrown into turmoil; many millions of Americans will lose their coverage; many others, including a lot of Trump voters (particularly elderly ones), will see their premiums rise sharply; and Trump will risk being just as closely associated with “Trumpcare” as Barack Obama was with Obamacare.

Two questions arise: Why did Ryan and his colleagues propose such a lemon? And why did Trump agree to throw his backing behind it?

The first question is easier to answer. For seven years, promising to get rid of Obamacare has been a rallying cry for Republicans on Capitol Hill—one supported by both Party leaders and activists, as well as by big donors, such as the Koch brothers. It was inevitable that, if the G.O.P. ever took power, it would move to fulfill this pledge, despite the human costs of doing so.

What wasn’t anticipated was that the Republican leadership would run into hostility from the right. But that, too, is explainable. After November’s election, Ryan and his colleagues were forced to face the reality that fully repealing the A.C.A. would require sixty votes in the Senate, which wasn’t achievable. Many of the things that ultra-conservatives see as shortcomings in the bill now being considered—such as the retention of rules dictating what sorts of policies insurers can offer—are in there to make sure that the Senate can pass the bill as part of the budget-reconciliation process, which requires just fifty-one votes. As McCarthy explained to Hannity, “The challenge is the process of how we have to do this.”

The more interesting question is why Trump would stake his credibility on such a deeply regressive, and potentially unpopular, proposal. During the campaign, he frequently promised to repeal Obamacare—but it wasn’t one of his main issues. Clamping down on immigration, embracing economic protectionism, rebuilding infrastructure, and blowing a raspberry at the Washington establishment were much more central to his platform.

Early in the campaign, in fact, Trump praised socialized medicine, and promised to provide everybody with health care. “As far as single-payer, it works in Canada. It works incredibly well in Scotland,” he said in August, 2015, during the first Republican debate. A month later, he told “60 Minutes,” “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”

Part of what is going on is that Trump needs a quick legislative success. He is keenly aware that, by this stage in his Presidency, Obama had signed a number of important bills, including a big stimulus package. Trump also badly needs to change the subject from Russia. It might sound crazy to suggest that a President would embrace a bill that could do him great harm in the long term just for a few days’ respite, but these are crazy times. If nothing else, the political furor surrounding the House G.O.P. proposal has eclipsed the headlines about Trump claiming that Obama wiretapped him. For much of this week, Trump has ducked out of sight, letting Ryan and his bill take the spotlight.

That’s not the only way the Russian story may have played into this. As the pressure grows for a proper independent probe of Trump’s ties to Moscow, he must retain the support of the G.O.P. leadership, which has the power to block such an investigation. It has long been clear that the relationship between the Republican Party and Trump is based on a quid pro quo, at least tacitly: in return for dismissing concerns about his authoritarianism, self-dealing, and Russophilia, the Party gets to enact some of the soak-the-poor policies it has long been promoting. For a time, it seemed like Trump was the senior partner in this arrangement. But now Republicans like Ryan have more leverage, and Trump has more of an incentive to go along with them.

Still, even if he had more leeway to speak out against the House G.O.P. bill, is there any reason to think he would? The thing always to remember about Trump—and this week has merely confirmed it—is that he is a sham populist. A sham authoritarian populist, even.

Going back to late-nineteenth-century Germany, many of the most successful authoritarian populists have expanded the social safety net. Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor, introduced health insurance, accident insurance, and old-age pensions. “The actual complaint of the worker is the insecurity of his existence,” he said in 1884. “He is unsure if he will always have work, he is unsure if he will always be healthy, and he can predict that he will reach old age and be unable to work.”

During the twentieth century, Argentina’s Juan Perón, Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew were among the authoritarian leaders who followed Bismarck’s example. Today, if you look at the election platform of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, you see something similar. Like Trump, Le Pen is a nativist, a protectionist, and an Islamophobe. But she is not proposing to dismantle any of the many social benefits that the French state provides. Rather, she says she will expand child-support payments and reduce the retirement age to sixty.

Trump, on the other hand, has little to offer ordinary Americans except protectionist rhetoric and anti-immigrant measures. Before moving to gut Obamacare, he at least could have tried to bolster his populist credentials by passing a job-creating infrastructure bill or a middle-class tax cut. Instead, he’s staked his Presidency on a proposal that would hurt many of his supporters, slash Medicaid, undermine the finances of Medicare, and benefit the donor class. That’s not populism: it’s the reverse of it. And it might be a political disaster in the making.

Doonesbury — Rank amateur.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Reading

Hard-Pressed — Evan Osnos in The New Yorker on Trump’s relationship with the media.

Even before the White House press corps was born—in 1896, when newspapers assigned reporters to a table outside the office of Grover Cleveland’s secretary—attentive reporters irritated occupants of the White House. To hide the fact that he had a tumor, Cleveland, in 1893, disappeared from Washington for four days to have surgery aboard a friend’s yacht. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson, who hated the press’s fascination with his three daughters, accused “certain evening newspapers” of quoting him on things he meant to stay off the record. He eventually all but abandoned news conferences. It was six years before Warren G. Harding, who had been a newspaper publisher, revived the tradition.

And, yet, over the years, almost every President has adopted a fruitful, if tense, mutual dependence with the press. Each needs something from the other, and both sides know it. Bruce Catton, a correspondent in the nineteen-forties, defined the constant business of leaking as information that officials were “either unwilling or unready” to reveal by name. Anonymity, ritually bemoaned and practiced by both sides, endures because it allows members of government, high and low, to speak more freely. Earlier this month, anonymity allowed the Washington Post to report, on the basis of nine sources, that Michael Flynn, the national-security adviser, had discussed Obama Administration sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Donald Trump took office, contrary to what Flynn told his colleagues. (Three days later, Flynn resigned.) Early Friday, CNN cited unnamed officials to report that the F.B.I. had rejected a White House request to dispute media reports that Trump’s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.

Anonymity, of course, is also a tool of the White House. On Thursday, one of Trump’s advisers e-mailed me a statement that began with the words “A WH official confirmed.” In Washington, anonymity, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, is a lousy solution, except for all the others.

But under Donald Trump, the dynamic between the press and the President has turned toxic. As a real-estate developer, Trump was, for many years, an energetic anonymous source (even pretending to be his own P.R. man to salt the local papers with news about himself), but Trump has bridled against the scrutiny applied to every President since Cleveland. On Friday morning, about an hour after his press secretary, Sean Spicer, and chief of staff, Reince Priebus, held an anonymous briefing for the press, Trump publicly excoriated the press’s use of anonymity. In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said, “I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people’—and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none.” At one point, he posed changes that would effectively alter the First Amendment, saying, “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.” He added, “We’re going to do something about it.”

And do something they did. Shortly after Trump’s speech, his press office narrowed the day’s briefing to what’s known as a “gaggle”—a smaller, off-camera format that is useful for impromptu or informal updates. It turned away CNN, the Times, BuzzFeed, Politico, and other outlets that have published tough stories about his Administration lately. It ushered in Breitbart, the Washington Times, and a conservative outlet called One America Network. When Zeke Miller, of Time magazine, and Julie Pace, of the Associated Press—both of whom are on the board of the White House Correspondents Association—realized that organizations were being excluded, they left in protest. Reporters who stayed later shared the contents of the briefing in full.

The White House defended its actions by saying that every White House holds handpicked, off-the-record sessions, but reporters noted that this was an on-the-record briefing. “In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve never been a party to a gaggle that was not on Air Force One or on the road,” Mark Landler, a senior White House correspondent at the Times, told me. “Handpicking the participants is totally new.”

By day’s end, news organizations still couldn’t decipher whether the change was temporary—a kind of press-office panic attack—or a more permanent turn. Davan Maharaj, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, which was among the excluded, told me, “We don’t know what this means. We don’t know if Spicer is under pressure to show that he’s being tougher with the press. We don’t know if this is another effort at manipulation to shift the topic from whether the Administration inappropriately tried to influence the F.B.I. on the Russian investigation. What it does seem like is another effort to target the press as the disloyal opposition and an attack on what objective truth is.”

There was, of course, no shortage of reasons for the White House to shift the topic. In addition to contacting the F.B.I., according to the Washington Post, the White House also “enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and Congress in efforts to counter news stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia”—a development that drew comparisons to Richard Nixon’s attempts to stifle the Watergate investigation. In another blow, the White House was confronting an article in the Forward, headlined, “Senior Trump Aide Forged Key Ties to Anti-Semitic Groups in Hungary,” which focussed on Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the President, who rose through the far-right edge of Hungarian politics.

“I think there are two things going on,” Maharaj said. “I think there is a clear effort to bring the press to heel, something that’s not going to happen to the people who are the purveyors of high-quality journalism in the press in the United States. There’s also a clear effort to delegitimize credible sources of information so when something happens, when we or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post pop a story, that there’s a record of already discrediting the source.”

So far, news organizations have been galvanized by the pressure. The Washington Post has added a new motto to its front page: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” And the L.A. Times has printed up T-shirts, for staff and the public, with the phrase “We will not shut up” in thirteen languages. “Look, we all joined this business to hold officials accountable and to search for truth and to be vigorous in that search,” Maharaj said.

In the days to come, there will be questions to settle. Will the White House Correspondents Association, which said it was “protesting strongly” the exclusions, urge members to boycott the briefings? (For its part, The New Yorker will not attend White House briefings until the exclusions are ended, according to David Remnick, the editor of the magazine.) Will members of Congress see it as another sign of the President’s authoritarian turn? In a telling sign of displeasure, Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who had supported Trump in the campaign, called, on Friday, for a special prosecutor to manage the investigation into contacts between Trump associates and Russia.

The course of events will be shaped, above all, by the President himself. Barring a critical press is a step that Trump’s predecessors avoided even at the depths of scandal. During Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the Monica Lewinsky affair, they continued to engage the press because an open society is at the heart of the values that compelled them to seek the White House in the first place. As Spicer himself said in December, the Trump Administration never planned to ban a news outlet: “Conservative, liberal, or otherwise, I think that’s what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.”

Every President is tempted, at times, to cower, to bully, to flee—even to a friend’s yacht. For Trump, there is an added incentive. He has at his disposal, and is using to full effect, something previous Presidents didn’t have: social media and a direct method of communication that bypasses the press.

But, historically, most Presidents eventually calculate that it is a ruinous strategy that only intensifies an Administration’s isolation and deepens the public’s distrust. During Grover Cleveland’s first Presidential campaign, in 1884, news broke that he had fathered an illegitimate child. He told his political aides and allies, “Whatever you do, tell the truth.” It contributed to his reputation and ultimately helped him win the White House. But in Washington today, the White House has slipped into a fragile, frantic mode, lurching from crisis to crisis, and not yet able to demonstrate whether its animating value is the preservation of its personnel or its integrity.

The Hard Part — Tim Murphy in Mother Jones on the part for the DNC.

And to think, that was the easy part. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected as chair of the Democratic National Committee on Saturday, edging out Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison in the first competitive election for the job in decades. The 55-year-old Perez, the first Latino chair of the party, will now inherit the most thankless job in politics—rebuilding a party that is at its lowest point since the 1920s.

The race was often miscast as a proxy fight between supporters of Bernie Sanders and supporters of Hillary Clinton, a framing that was unfair to both Ellison and Perez, dynamic and progressive political operatives running for a job often reserved for staid political figures. In the end, Perez’s win was not a rejection of Ellison’s vision of the party; in key ways, his campaign was an affirmation of it.

Party chair is a position typically of interest only to political junkies. But with organizers still amped up from the presidential election, the race had the feel and structure of a competitive primary, with a half-dozen candidate forums across the country and an intensive push from rank-and-file voters that recalled previous courting of superdelegates. “I’ve been lobbied consistently by phone, by email, by Facebook, by Twitter for the last month,” said Melvin Poindexter, a DNC member from Massachusetts who was supporting Ellison.

Ellison, for his part, tried to tamp down the barrage of phone calls on his behalf, which one state party chair unfavorably described as “anarchy.” But aggressive lobbying proved critical. Kerman Maddox, a DNC member from California, explained that he’d chosen Perez in part because “Tom called me more than any of the other Democratic candidates”—a sentiment echoed by other voting members.

After the results were announced, a dozen Ellison supporters—including the congressman’s brother, Eric—chanted “party for the people, not big money” from the back of the Atlanta ballroom, with a few cries of “bullshit!” thrown in. While the formal final vote, sealed on the second ballot, was 235 to 200, in a show of unity, Perez was subsequently elected by acclamation. In his first move as chair, he announced that Ellison had agreed to serve as his deputy chair.

“If you’re wearing a ‘Keith’ t-shirt—or any t-shirt—I am asking you to give everything you’ve got to support chairman Perez,” Ellison told the room. Afterward, they switched campaign pins in a show of solidarity.

In the run up to the vote, some Ellison backers argued that there was no real case for a Perez chairmanship—that he was running as a check on Sanders’ influence and little more. But DNC members I spoke with seemed to understand Perez’s pitch quite clearly: he was a turnaround artist who had retooled complex bureaucracies toward progressive ends, first at the Maryland Department of Labor, then at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and finally as President Barack Obama’s Labor Secretary. If progressives had forgotten what they liked about Perez, they needed to look no farther than the conservative Breitbart News, which once heralded Perez “the most radical cabinet secretary since Henry Wallace,” the New Dealer who eventually bolted the Democrats to mount a third party challenge in 1948.

The fights that Perez has waged over the course of his career track closely with those Ellison cut his teeth on in Minneapolis—housing discrimination, voter suppression, and living wages. Neo-liberal stooges still have a place in the Democratic party. But the DNC chair isn’t one of them.

Beyond their shared political priorities, Perez even offered a similar diagnosis as Ellison. The party had become top-heavy, focusing too much on the presidential race, and had neglected to compete on a county-by-county level. He advocated something resembling a restoration of former chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, and proposed to spend more time knocking on doors in off-year elections. There was no talk of compromising with President Donald Trump; Perez dubbed him “the worst president in the history of the United States.”

Ellison sought to win the same way he always has, through a mastery of coalition politics. His backers included American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Rep. John Lewis, and Sanders—many of whom found themselves on opposing sides during the president primary. The threat by OJ Simpson counsel and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz< to leave the party if Ellison won did not appear to have a substantial effect on voters. (Maybe they were waiting to hear from F. Lee Bailey.) He ran not as Sanders 2.0, but as a restoration of an even older form of Democratic progressivism, one evoked by the spruce-green colors on his t-shirts and tote bags—the campaign colors of his political idol, the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Just a few hours before the election, there was an indication Ellison might come up short when the committee members voted on a resolution that would reinstate the party’s ban on corporate donations. The ban, which was first implemented by president-elect Barack Obama in 2008, had been dropped last year by the previous party chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Ellison had supported the reinstatement of the ban and envisioned a party’s fundraising model in the mold of Sanders’ small-dollar campaign. Perez never committed to reinstating the contribution ban.

The resolution brought on the most contentious 10 minutes of a weekend that, up until then, had been a love-fest. Bob Mulholland of California, the leading critic of the ban, chided critics as naive. He cited corporate opposition to ousted North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory as proof that corporations aren’t all evil. Supporters of the ban, some of the new party leaders whom had been recently elected to their posts with the backing of Sanders’s supporters, implicitly tied the resolution to the senator’s one-time candidacy, warning that the party risked alienating voters who cared about money in politics. Jessica Sell Chambers, a Sanders backer and the newly minted national committeewoman from Wyoming, offered a succinct appraisal: “I belong to the party of the people and the last time I checked corporations aren’t people.”

Inside the Westin, where Democrats began assembling on Thursday, the notion that the chair candidates were engaged in a rancorous, existential fight seemed far-fetched. Perez, who was hoarse from two days of lobbying as he made a last-minute push Friday night, had taken to calling the event “Unity Saturday.” Even the most die-hard Ellison supporters were optimistic that the party would be in good hands win or lose. Each of the leading candidates devoted portions of their stump speech to a call for unity no matter who won.

“I really just want to like put at least four of them together,” said Dolly Strazar from Hawaii, a Sanders supporter who ended up backing Perez. Another voting member, Aleita Huguenin of California, predicted that the fight would quickly simmer down. “I’ve been through too many of them,” she said. “People are a little disappointed, they have two dinners, and will be back together.”

In reality, the contentious fight over the future of the party never really described the DNC race—but there is such a battle playing out across the country. Already, Sanders supporters, both organically and with the support of the Senator’s non-profit Our Revolution, have begun targeting the party’s apparatus at state, county, and local levels. They are poised to take over the California Democratic party in May, after winning a majority of delegates to the state convention in January. The Sanders wing is ascendant in Nebraska and Wyoming, and setting its sights on Florida and Michigan. Beyond party positions, re-energized Sanders supporters are talking openly about primary challenges to Democratic officeholders who support Donald Trump’s policies.

Less than a year after only 39 of 447 DNC members endorsed Sanders’ presidential campaign, his chosen candidate came about 15 votes short of taking over the whole thing. The numbers reflect Sanders’ forces growing strength in the party, a gradual upheaval that may only be sped along by Perez’s victory. DNC members from Wyoming—where the Vermont senator notched a huge caucus victory but due to party rules emerged with few delegates—who are not on board are feeling the heat. When Bruce Palmer, the party’s vice chair, told me he was supporting Tom Perez, he conceded that it may be to his own detriment. After all, he’s got an election next month.

Town Hall Advice — Former Rep. Steve Israel has some thoughts for his GOP colleagues facing their constituents.

Unruly crowds at town halls are taking members of Congress by surprise. Many are so intimidated that they are refusing to show up. President Trump recently tweeted, “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!”

They are not sad, Mr. President, but mad. Not long ago, I was on the receiving end.

Until last month, I represented a fairly quiet district on Long Island. For the first nine years of my time in Congress, my town halls could barely fill a closet. We held them in firehouses and libraries. The events were civil and sleepy, and my interns usually outnumbered the constituents. I’d show up in my gleaming congressional lapel pin and requisite red tie, ready for that Rockwellian view of a citizenry’s public discourse with a national leader. Then, my heart would drop when I saw mostly empty metal folding chairs.

All of that changed when the Tea Party rolled in.

In 2009, my Democratic colleagues began reporting that their town meetings were being disrupted. Civil discourse was being replaced by brawls. In some cases, police officers were brought in to protect the politicians.

Not in my district, I thought. I couldn’t even bribe my constituents into coming with free bagels and coffee.

Then it began: an avalanche of calls demanding to know when and where I’d conduct a town hall. Some of the voices had decidedly Southern accents (and I don’t mean the South Shore of Long Island). My interns usually took callers’ names and addresses, but strangely, many of the people who said they needed to attend a town hall didn’t want to leave a phone number so we could tell them when and where they could satisfy that urge.

We set an evening and searched for a site big enough to accommodate the crowd, settling on the theater at a community college. When I arrived, I saw so many people that I thought the college had scheduled a sporting event at the same time. That’s when I realized that I was the sporting event.

People were tailgating. Yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were hoisted everywhere. The Suffolk County Police Department was out in force.

Perhaps the lowest point of the town hall was when one member of my staff was taunted as being a socialist. She happens to be an Army veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had arranged for the League of Women Voters to moderate the meeting so I couldn’t be accused of selecting favorable questions. That worked out fine until someone in the audience accused the League of Women Voters of being socialists, too.

Almost immediately I noticed something unusual. Every couple of minutes, people at the end of every few rows of seats would spring to their feet, then turn to the rows immediately behind them and urge others to stand — like orchestrating a wave at a baseball game. It was the first time I’d witnessed syncopated booing.

For two hours, I was called more names and booed at more times than I thought possible. At the merciful end, my politician’s instincts took hold and I approached the edge of the stage to shake hands with a group that swelled against it. Then I felt a tug on my arm. It was a police officer, surrounded by three colleagues, who said: “We think it would be a good idea to leave. Now.”

Later I saw a memo by the Tea Party Patriots giving instructions to crowds like this across the nation. It was essentially a manual for what their strategy should be at a town-hall meeting: Scream loudly, be disruptive and make clear that a significant portion of the audience does not support the agenda.

The night of my town hall, I knew the crowd was effectively stage-managed and that many people there didn’t live in my district. But I didn’t make an issue of that, as President Trump does now. It was my obligation — my job — to listen to disagreement. The people there were Americans expressing their anger and anxiety; exercising a constitutional principle to petition their grievances to government. It wasn’t a pleasant night, but it was a patriotic one.

So my advice to those members of Congress who are hiding out or delaying is this: You can run for re-election, but you can’t hide from the American people.

The longer you wait, the louder it will get.

 Doonesbury — Just the guy for the job.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

Alternative Facts

Fact: I’m a 64-year-old white guy with a mid-level government job who could stand to lose a few pounds.

Alternative fact: I’m a well-muscled billionaire who can fly.

This seems to be the new normal.

One of the advantages of being my age is that I remember all too well how a previous administration dealt with a press corps they didn’t like or trust.  Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, had a running battle with the press before and during Watergate to the point that it was taken for granted by the press that whatever he said was misleading or an outright lie.

Given Mr. Nixon’s well-documented paranoia and hatred of the press, Mr. Ziegler had a tough and thankless job.  On the other hand, Kellyanne Conway seems to relish being combative while trying — and failing miserably — to be charming in a Fox News-like perky and yet devoid-of-reality sort of way.

The Washington press corps has been chastised, and rightly so, for dutifully following the lines and lies of the Republicans during the last eight years and especially during the election of 2016, blowing up little things into major scandals (Hillary’s coughing!) while letting the truly telling and important facts (what’s up with Trump and Russia?) get brushed aside.  The excuse was that was an election campaign and they couldn’t call out the bullshit because then they would be seen as being biased.  Well, guess what, fellas; that’s what they always say, so why not tell the real news and not get lead around by the nose?  They’re going to beat you up no matter what, so why not take the beating for a good cause?

Now that Trump is in office they seem to feel that the gloves can come off.  Well, if they had felt that way a year ago about his blatant bullshit and inability to keep a story straight from the start of one paragraph to the end of it, perhaps we wouldn’t be forced to watch the reincarnation of Josef Goebbels in drag chirping away on “Meet The Press” telling us that their “facts” are “alternative facts.”  Now it’s already baked into the cake.